Viewpoints: California must continue to lead on home energy efficiency

With quite a bit of fanfare, Apple unveiled its new iPhone 6 last month to eager consumers, proudly proclaiming that it is 50 percent more energy efficient than the iPhone 5 introduced just two years ago.

With much less fanfare, Gov. Jerry Brown just vetoed a bill that would have greatly diminished the state’s ability to adopt energy efficiency standards that save consumers money, as well as to help the state’s economy and environment. By blocking Assembly Bill 2581, he has made it possible for other digital household devices – DVRs, game consoles, modems, routers, desktop computers and monitors – to potentially have similar energy efficiency gains as the new iPhone.

The issue here is that hardware manufacturers care a great deal about the energy use (battery life) of portable devices. They do not care nearly as much about plugged-in devices. Because it is difficult for consumers to find out how much electricity each device uses and how much each adds to their monthly bills, the manufacturers do not feel much market pressure to improve energy efficiency.

While federal and state policies have set minimum efficiency standards for appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators for decades, when it comes to the fastest-growing segment of home energy consumption – networked digital devices – manufacturers lack incentives to make more efficient products. That is why standards are so important.

This fall, the California Energy Commission plans to draft new efficiency standards for digital devices. There is no reason to shy away from strong rules that could potentially save consumers billions of dollars over the life of these household appliances and could also boost local economies since the pocketbook savings are used to buy other goods and services.

The Consumer Electronics Association, an industry group with a healthy lobbying budget, has been pushing bad legislation, like the vetoed bill. The amount of electricity gobbled up by America’s digital devices more than quintupled over the past decade and now represents the largest unregulated electricity use in the home. Add it all up and these electronic items now consume almost half the energy all air conditioners use, and about two-thirds the energy that all refrigerators use.

The impact of digital devices on household energy use is particularly high in California, where computer and Internet use is higher than the U.S. average and air conditioning use is lower than the average. An International Energy Agency study this year found the world’s 14 billion online electronic devices waste around $80 billion annually due to inefficient technology.

The governor rightfully vetoed the bill to protect California’s decades-long leadership in appliance efficiency standards. It is an example of American federalism at its best – a state takes the initiative and serves as a laboratory for policy innovation. It’s no accident California’s power consumption per capita has remained constant for 35 years, while energy use in the rest of the nation has increased by 40 percent as new appliances, equipment and gadgets have come onto the market.

The Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Action are calling on the Consumer Electronic Association’s membership to stop supporting an industry group that is undermining the state’s efforts to become more energy efficient. Recently, top tech companies broke from the American Legislative Exchange Council due to its stance on climate change. We’re urging CEA members – including Apple, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and others who are committed to moving to a cleaner, more efficient energy future – to take stock of the industry group’s record and at least distance themselves from its efforts to slow California’s energy efficiency progress.

California should lead on digital household devices, just as it has led the nation on so many other clean energy and climate policies.